With the objective of taking a deeper dive into some of the favorite topics of the recent Anxiety Summit: Gut-Brain Axis, today’s blog is about the vagus nerve since Dr. Navaz Habib’s interview, Vagus Nerve Activation to Reduce Anxiety, was voted one of the favorites. I’m focusing on one tool that improves vagus nerve function that we didn’t have time to get into in great detail – and that is how increased sociability helps. It’s all good and well to recommend getting out and hanging out with more people but if you have the social anxiety condition called pyroluria it’s really challenging, hard work and very stressful. Added stress makes pyroluria worse so it becomes a vicious cycle.
Let’s start with the research that supports the connection between the vagus nerve and increased anxiety and mood problems. In the interview with Dr Navaz, we discussed this paper: Vagus Nerve as Modulator of the Brain–Gut Axis in Psychiatric and Inflammatory Disorders which states that “vagus nerve stimulation is a promising add-on treatment for treatment-refractory depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and inflammatory bowel disease” and how stimulation of vagal fibers that go from the gut to the brain (afferent fibers) influences neurotransmitter production and “play crucial roles in major psychiatric conditions, such as mood and anxiety disorders.” The gut bacteria play a major role too, “partly by affecting the activity of the vagus nerve.”
In our interview we end with very practical ways to activate your vagus nerve
- Deep breathing exercises (mentioned in the above paper, together with yoga and meditation) and cold showers (which makes you breathe harder)
- Gargling and using the gag reflex
- Humming, chanting and singing (I used these approaches for my vagus nerve issue after my terrifying plane ride. GABA also helped with the voice/throat spasms I experienced – more here on that)
- Auricular acupuncture (which is also very effective for addictions)
- And finally, social interaction or increased sociability, which I want to cover today
The research on the vagus nerve and being more social
Let’s look at the research on the vagus nerve or vagal tone and being more social. This paper, Upward spirals of the heart: autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness, reports that that vagal tone and connectedness or being more social is a two-way street i.e. it’s reciprocal
- “…increases in connectedness and positive emotions predicted increases in vagal tone” and
- “Adults who possessed higher initial levels of vagal tone increased in connectedness and positive emotions more rapidly than others”
In summary, the more social and happy you are, the healthier your vagus nerve is and a healthier vagus nerve leads to feeling more connected and happy.
This study was done with adults in a community-dwelling setting over 9 weeks: “adults were asked to monitor and report their positive emotions and the degree to which they felt socially connected each day.”
Address pyroluria in those who have social anxiety
Pyroluria, the social anxiety condition, was not part of the study because it’s under-recognized as a factor in anxiety. I’d like to propose that we address pyroluria in those who have social anxiety in order to further improve social connectedness and their vagus nerve function.
Many folks with pyroluria put on a brave face in social settings and even “extrovert” which is extremely stressful. The added stress makes pyroluria worse (zinc and vitamin B6 are dumped in much higher amounts) so it becomes a vicious cycle.
Others, who are not willing to even show up because of their severe social anxiety, are not getting that social interaction and connectedness that is so crucial for improved vagus nerve function and better overall health.
Connecting the dots further we have
- research that reports that vagus nerve stimulation has potential in autism treatment and we know pyroluria and social issues are common in autism
- one of the key nutrients for pyroluria, zinc, plays a role in vagus nerve function
- another key nutrient in pyroluria is vitamin B6 and it plays a role in reducing inflammation
- according to the vagus nerve study above, the vagus nerve “plays important roles in the relationship between the gut, the brain, and inflammation”
- both zinc and vitamin B6 are needed for neurotransmitter production, so increasing both GABA and serotonin will further improve mood and reduce anxiety
- and finally, the more social and happy you are, the healthier your vagus nerve is and a healthier vagus nerve leads to feeling more connected and happy
By addressing the social anxiety called pyroluria with a foundation of zinc and vitamin B6, we can increase sociability and thereby improve vagus nerve function.
Social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic – other vagus nerve exercises
This blog is very applicable now during the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve made an update because I feel we need to start thinking about the longer-term adverse impacts of social isolation and work on other ways to improve vagus nerve function during isolation or quarantine.
This can include any or all of the ways mentioned above: deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, cold showers, gargling/gag reflex, humming/chanting/singing and/or auricular acupuncture.
Do you find you have better vagus nerve function when you are more sociable? What of these vagus nerve exercises have you been doing and found helpful during isolation? Do you have any other favorite approaches like using essential oils or anything else?
Vagus nerve stimulation to treat respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19
This paper reports benefits in 2 patients with coronavirus – Use of non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation to treat respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19: A theoretical hypothesis and early clinical experience
- Both patients reported clinically meaningful benefits from nVNS therapy [non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation].
- In Case 1, the patient used nVNS to expedite symptomatic recovery at home after hospital discharge and was able to discontinue use of opioid and cough suppressant medications.
- In Case 2, the patient experienced immediate and consistent relief from symptoms of chest tightness and shortness of breath, as well as an improved ability to clear his lungs.
The authors also share that “vagus nerve stimulation has been demonstrated to block production of cytokines in sepsis and other medical conditions.”
With this virus being novel and with everyone learning we are still appreciative of small case reports like this and hope to see bigger studies done. Until then there is other evidence of the overall importance of the vagus nerve in helping to regulate lung infection and immunity.
The nVNS therapy mentioned in the COVID-19 paper is an external device that delivers “a proprietary signal through the skin to either the right or the left branches of the vagus nerve in the neck.” It’s not something I’ve used personally or had clients use so please share if you’ve had success with this device or a similar device.
Loving social isolation and thriving during coronavirus
On the flip side we also need to consider that there are some individuals who are loving social isolation and thriving emotionally. I share some feedback from folks in my community:
- Elissa: “As an introvert, my mental health has never been better ☺️. Loving isolation life.”
- Drew: “Loving it in many ways. Dreading the hedonism starting up again…”
- Tiffany: “My anxiety levels have decreased and I have decreased my anxiety meds! I think it’s because the demand to produce has decreased. I can actually move at my own speed in this world. I’m fortunate, though. My heart goes out to those people in medical fields. I really miss some things, like time with my dad, but we have made some adjustments, like driveway picnics.”
- Katie: “I was praying for relief from the busyness. Definitely didn’t have this in mind and my heart hurts for those who are impacted. It has been a beautiful time of rest and restoration for my body and soul.”
- Wendy: “My life is usually slow paced and introverted. Now it’s more so and I’m finding the less I do in a day, the better I sleep. I’m actually dreading getting back to “normal” with all the pressures put on us by extroverts. Yes I have sympathy for people suffering mentally by isolation, but for the first time I feel like my type of lifestyle is socially acceptable. I’m tired of life expectations being dictated by the extrovert half of the population.”
I appreciate these folks for sharing their valuable perspectives about thriving in these times. It reinforces how unique we all are.
If you’re struggling with social isolation…
- How are you feeling and what are you most looking forward to doing once social isolation recommendations are relaxed?
- I’m guessing you don’t have pyroluria but please share if you do?
If you are thriving in social isolation…
- Would you consider yourself an introvert /a contented introvert?
- Have you got pyroluria and has addressing it nutritionally in the past allowed you to be more sociable or at least less anxious when you are in crowds?
- How are you feeling during social isolation and what do you love the most right now?
- What are you not looking forward to once social isolation recommendations are relaxed?
- And how do you plan to go back to the old “normal” or don’t you?
Please comment below and let us know where you are with social isolation during this pandemic – struggling or thriving? And what vagus nerve exercises are you using right now? Have you used an external device with success?